Whose Language is it, Anyway? English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)

28 March, 2023

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Today we will be discussing the idea of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). Ever since people started communicating and trading with other groups of people who didn’t share their native language, lingua francas such as Koiné Greek, Latin or Italian have developed. In the last century, it is English that has become the most widely spoken language in the world,[i] with non-native speakers far surpassing native ones.[ii] So, what happens when people from varied cultures who speak completely different languages communicate through English? The answer is more complex than it seems, and it makes linguists and non-linguists alike reconsider their concepts of native speakers and what the ultimate goal is when learning a language.

It’s all Greek to me

First, let’s have a look at what lingua francas are. They are generally described as languages used between people who do not share a native language or dialect,[iii] usually for the sake of doing business but also cultural exchanges, diplomacy, science and so on.[iv] There have been many examples throughout history, such as the aforementioned Koiné Greek, Latin and Italian. In fact, the mediaeval language from which the term originated was used around the Levant and the eastern Mediterranean Sea between the 11th and the 19th centuries, most notably during the Renaissance, and it was a kind of simplified mixture of Italian and Spanish with many loanwords from Arabic, Greek and other languages simply called the Frankish tongue or Mediterranean Lingua Franca.

These classical lingua francas enjoyed widespread use in their heyday, but eventually fell out of use and gave way to modern cases, of which English is the best known yet not the only example, with Spanish also giving it a run for its money. In the case of English, there are many factors that contributed to its worldwide dominance: the British Empire’s colonisation of many territories, the emergence of American cultural and commercial influence, and the widespread use of the Internet.[v] As a consequence, English has become the most common way to communicate with people all over the world. Having spread to the far ends of the world, however, English has been altered/changed outside of the control of native speakers, and this is how the concept of English as a Lingua Franca has come about.


Function over form?

One of the key features of English as a Lingua Franca is the acceptance of forms that would be considered “non-standard” by the usual English as a Foreign Language norms. For example, while omitting the third-person – in the Present Simple; using who or which interchangeably; or not using an article where “the” should go would be deemed mistakes in a regular EFL classroom, in the context of ELF they are generally accepted and do not necessarily hinder comprehension. These liberties that ELF speakers may take are often the reason why critics of this lingua franca deem it as nothing more than “foreigner speak” or “Bad Spoken English”.[vi] Even though ELF lacks a definite list of the accepted variations, this does not mean it is not a variety worthy of analysing.

Despite the more flexible rules and principles of ELF, there are some core notions of pronunciation that still need to be considered in order to maintain intelligibility. For instance, consonants should be correctly pronounced whereas the different vowel lengths should also be clear, since these two factors are key to maintain a degree of intelligible English. These and other important pronunciation guidelines were proposed in 2000 by Jennifer Jenkins in her book The Phonology of English as an International Language and are an attempt at providing a blueprint for how ELF should sound.

Who “owns” English?

Before going any further, let’s discuss other ELF-related concepts, such as “World Englishes”. This idea of localised varieties of English was popularised during the 1970s and 1980s, when Kachru (1985) described the spread of English in terms of three concentric circles: the Inner Circle, the Outer Circle and the Expanding Circle, which represent “the type of spread, the patterns of acquisition and the functional domains in which English is used”. The Inner Circle includes the Anglo-Saxon countries and its anglophone former colonies. In the Outer Circle there are countries in which English has official or historical importance, such as Commonwealth members. Finally, the Expanding Circle refers to countries where English is important for business, tourism and so on.

Needless to say, when we take into consideration the circumstances in which English has become the modern lingua franca, it is important to remember the effects of colonisation and imperialism on indigenous cultures. English became the de facto language in the colonies, not by choice, and the same could be argued when discussing the influence of the United States to the detriment of national culture. So where is the line drawn? That is something linguistics, teachers, and native and non-native speakers of English will have to figure out together.

What happens in the classroom?

Of course, one of the biggest dilemmas arises when the teaching and learning of English as a Second Language is considered. Should teachers aim at educating perfect speakers of English who sound native-like? Or should they rather worry about the ultimate objective of communication and disregard standards in pursuit of a more “international” ideal? So far, it seems that institutions are not interested in adopting ELF, preferring to stick to more traditional notions of language teaching. Nevertheless, there have been some proposals, such as Basic English, developed by Ogden in the 1930s,[vii] Threshold Level English, by van Ek and Alexander,[viii] Globish, by Jean-Paul Nerrière,[ix] and Basic Global English by Grzega.[x]

Furthermore, if students are looking to pass international exams or apply for scholarships or jobs, teaching them ELF will not be useful, as it is not yet considered an acceptable form of English. English as a Lingua Franca, in a way, is closely related to English in the Expanding Circle and to the more general concept of World Englishes. Therefore, it is important to continue doing research because of the ever expanding circle and the new non-native speakers of English who will become part of the millions of people who use English to communicate with others around the world, whether they are natives or not. This continuous flow of communication is the basis of ELF and why it is still hard to pinpoint exactly its characteristics, but it should not discourage us from trying to understand it in the broader context of the 21st century.

The Future of ELF?

As more and more people come in contact with English from an early age (through e.g. the use of social media or video games), more language learning apps such as Duolingo are developed, and the recent changes in the working life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, English will continue to be widely use to communicate, trade, and interact with the rest of the world. Despite the criticisms and disdain for concepts like ELF, it cannot be denied that lingua francas, imperfect as they may be, in the long run help us to connect with other people, which ultimately is the essence of any language. Only the future will tell if the simplifications proposed by English as a Lingua Franca advocates can effectively be considered a variety of its own, as valid as any other English dialect.

Bibliography

  • Kachru, B.B. (1985) “Standard, Codification and Sociolinguistic Realism: The English Language in the Outer Circle,” in R. Quirk and H. Widdowson (eds) English in the World: Teaching and Learning the Language and Literatures, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 11–30.
  • Jenkins, Jennifer. English as a Lingua Franca in the International University: The Politics of Academic English Language Policy. 1st ed., Routledge, 2013.
  • Jenkins, Jennifer. The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford University press, 2000.
  • Seidlhofer, Barbara. “Language variation and change: The case of English as a lingua franca.” English pronunciation models: A changing scene (2005): 59-75.

Footnotes


[i] Source: https://lingua.edu/the-20-most-spoken-languages-in-the-world-in-2022/

[ii] Source: https://lemongrad.com/english-language-statistics

[iii] Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/lingua-franca

[iv] Source: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/magazine/speaking-in-tongues

[v] Source: https://www.gofluent.com/blog/english-most-influential-language-story

[vi] Source: https://www.thoughtco.com/english-as-a-lingua-franca-elf-1690578

[vii] Source: https://www.britannica.com/science/Basic-English-artificial-language

[viii] Source: https://www.ealta.eu.org/documents/resources/Threshold-Level_CUP.pdf

[ix] Source: https://www.thoughtco.com/globish-english-language-1690818

[x] Source: http://www.joachim-grzega.de/BGE.pdf

Contributed by Victoria Martínez Mutri

Victoria is a CELTA-certified English as a Foreign Language teacher, with a background in Translation, from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Fascinated by language since an early age, she’s particularly interested in the fields of Applied Linguistics and Sociolinguistics. She’s been researching and writing about gender-inclusive language since 2018. After graduating, she would like to obtain a Master’s Degree in Linguistics at a foreign university.

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